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Does a Herniated Disc Qualify for Disability?

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
September 28, 2023  ·  4 min read
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If a herniated disc prevents you from working, you might be eligible for disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) categorizes a herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc or ruptured disc, as a musculoskeletal system and connective tissue disorder. 

Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue (MSCTD) are among the most approved conditions for Social Security Disability Insurance. In 2021, nearly 2.7 million workers received disability benefits due to MSCTD disorders.

Nevertheless, qualifying for Social Security disability benefits with any condition is challenging. We'll walk you through the SSA’s definition of a herniated disc, the qualification requirements for disability benefits, and the steps you should take next.

What is a herniated disc?

A herniated disc is when a tear or rupture in one of the spinal discs between vertebrae forces a part of it to protrude into the spinal canal. This most often occurs in the lower back, though it can also happen in the neck. Often, a herniated disc does not cause pain, but possible symptoms can include:

  • Muscle weakness, leading to stumbling or difficulty lifting or holding items

  • Numbness or tingling in the affected part of the body

  • Pain in the arms or legs

Is a herniated disc a disability?

Yes, the SSA considers a herniated disc a disability. If you are unable to work due to a spinal disc issue, including a herniated disc or a bulging disc, then you may be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

How the SSA defines a herniated disc

The Social Security Administration uses a guide called the Blue Book to determine eligibility for medical conditions. The SSA Blue Book includes herniated discs within the larger category of musculoskeletal disorders, under Section 1.04 (Disorders of the Spine). When evaluating spine disorders, the SSA considers how a herniated disc impacts the nerve root or spinal cord, the severity of symptoms, and how the injury affects daily functioning.

Bulging disc vs. herniated disc 

A bulging disc and a herniated disc are similar but distinct spinal conditions. With a bulging disc, the outer layer of the disc sags and bulges outward. In a herniated disc, the outer layer of cartilage tears or cracks. Typically, a bulging disc is less painful than a herniated disc, but if either spinal condition leaves you unable to work, you may qualify for disability.

Can you get disability for a herniated disc?

If you are unable to work due to a herniated disc, then you may be able to receive Social Security disability benefits. Still, even if a condition technically qualifies, getting benefits is challenging because of strict eligibility criteria. 

Qualifying for benefits can be easier if you have another qualifying condition alongside a herniated disc. Make sure to include other diagnosed conditions in your application. For instance, maybe you also receive treatment for sciatica because of a herniated disc.

Learn more about situations when back pain is eligible for disability benefits.

Criteria for getting disability with a herniated disc

To receive disability for a herniated disc, you need to meet SSA criteria and demonstrate you are unable to work due to your condition. You will need clear medical documentation to provide evidence of your symptoms and functioning, including:

  • Physical examination reports: This report must include detailed descriptions of your condition and symptoms based on direct observations made during a physical exam.

  • Imaging: The SSA will want to see imaging and potentially other diagnostic tests showing evidence of an abnormality, like a herniated or bulging disc. 

  • Operative reports: If any surgical procedures were done, the SSA requires a copy of the operative report with details on findings from the surgery and information on any possible complications.

  • Information on treatment: The SSA will also want detailed information on any treatments you're receiving to alleviate issues stemming from a herniated disc. If you use an assistive device, such as a cane or a walker, you must provide a documented medical need.

Questions to ask yourself before applying

Before applying for disability due to a herniated disc, it's helpful to ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to most or all of these, it’s more likely you'll meet SSA standards:

  • Have you received a diagnosis of a herniated or bulging disc with symptoms documented by a medical professional?

  • Does your condition prevent you from walking meaningful distances? Does it inhibit your mobility? Does it cause discomfort when you're sitting or standing?

  • Does your condition significantly limit your ability to perform daily tasks like bathing, cooking, or dressing yourself?

  • Are you currently seeking treatment from a professional, such as a pain management specialist, chiropractor, or physical therapist?

  • Is surgery, therapy, injections, or an assistive device necessary for your condition? If you've received any of these treatments, have they decreased your pain?

My herniated disc meets the criteria. Now what?

If you meet the SSA criteria for a herniated disc, the next step is to apply for disability benefits. Because the application process can be time-intensive, it's best to begin it as soon as you can. Consider taking the Atticus disability benefits quiz. After you take this quiz, a member of our team will reach out if your answers suggest you could qualify for disability benefits. 

If you're interested, we can also pair you with a lawyer to help guide you through the process. (Note that getting matched is free, and there's no obligation to work with our lawyers. Though if you do, you won't owe anything until after you win disability benefits.)

What type of benefits should I apply for?

As you get into the application process, you'll find that there are two types of disability benefits that you can apply for: SSDI and SSI. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are both government programs that provide support to individuals who cannot work due to a medical condition. They also provide health insurance (SSI offers Medicare, while SSI offers Medicaid).

The programs are targeted toward different populations though. If you've worked and paid taxes for at least five of the last 10 years, you'll likely want to apply for SSDI. On the other hand, if you have few assets and little income, SSI might be the right path. To be eligible for SSI, a single person must earn $900 or less per month and have few assets and savings.

If you have further questions about who these two programs serve, here's a full rundown of the differences between SSDI and SSI.

What if my herniated disc doesn’t meet the criteria?

After reviewing this article, you might find that your herniated disc does not meet the criteria to qualify for disability benefits. Still, if you have medical documentation of your disc issue and can demonstrate that you're unable to work because of it, you should apply.

Even applicants who clearly meet the SSA requirements for a herniated disc may not get their application approved immediately. In fact, around 20% of applicants receive disability benefits on their first application attempt. It's worth the time and effort to keep trying though, as the chances of winning an appeal are much higher than the approval odds for an initial application.

As you navigate this challenging process, feel free to turn to the financial and legal resources for people with disabilities that Atticus has compiled.

How much is a disability check for a herniated disc?

A disability check for a musculoskeletal condition like a herniated disc averages $1,427.22 per month. That said, it's possible to receive more or less than that amount, as you can see from this overview of how much people make on SSDI and SSI. As of 2024, the maximum amount you could receive for your herniated disc is $3,822 per month for SSDI or $943 per month for SSI.

These maximums apply regardless of the medical condition you have or the number of qualifying conditions you include on your application. Ultimately, the amount you receive depends on which type of benefits you receive. SSI is calculated based on your total income, whereas SSDI, is based on your work history.

Ready to get benefits today?

Related resources:

What Conditions Qualify for Disability?

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

Everything You Should Know About Disability Benefits (SSDI and SSI)

By Sarah Aitchison

See what you qualify for

How long has your condition made it hard to work?

Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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